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By Bryan Jew
The Tour of Flanders produced an unexpected winner on Sunday, and it proved to be a nice surprise for the Italians, as Taconni-Vini Caldirola’s Gianluca Bortolami edged Erik Dekker (Rabobank) in a photofinish, while the pre-race favorites had to settle for a ninth-place sprint.
Bortolami turned up as the top survivor on a day that began with a big crash, and ended with an eight-man sprint that contained the remnants of a once-20-man breakaway.
The race began in the historic town center in Brugge, which was packed with Belgian fans under a cloudy, sometimes drizzly sky. Despite some early showers, though, big rain never came, and the sun would begin to break through by the end of the day.
Early on, some nervousness got the best of the peloton, and a big crash took down some of the big names, including Johan Museeuw (Domo-Farm Frites), Erik Zabel (Telekom), Peter Van Petegem (Mercury-Viatel) and Dekker. Worst off in the crash was Mercatone Uno’s Cristian Moreni, who withdrew with a broken arm, but most of the others remained in the race.
The peloton got down to business on the first of the race’s many cobblestone climbs, with Lotto’s Nico Eeckhout leading a four-man breakaway. That group was caught after Eeckhout suffered a flat, but soon after, the race’s defining breakaway got away. A large group of about 20 went off, and after some initial shuffling, it would eventually include Lotto’s Eeckhout and Fabian De Waele; Domo-Farm Frites’ Servais Knaven; Mapei-Quick Step’s Daniele Nardello and Stefano Zanini; Dekker; Rabobank’s Maarten Den Bakker; Fassa Bortolo’s Fabio Baldato; Lampre’s Ludo Dierckxsens and U.S. Postal’s Christian Vande Velde and Matt White.
The move was a good one for Postal, which had George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Ekimov waiting back in the second group, and they were content to sit in as the group built up a lead of near two minutes. The main teams left not represented in the break were Telekom and Cofidis, which would take up the chase behind.
Out front, the leaders continued to zigzag and crisscross their way across the complicated course, which spends a good part of the day doubling back on itself near the town of Oudenaarde before finishing up in Meerbeke.
Taking the initiative in the break was Dierckxsens, who forced the pace over many of the final dozen climbs in the last 90km. His efforts would eventually contribute to cutting the size of the lead group in half.
As the leaders crested the Old Kwaremont, at the 204km mark, the lead group was down to eight: Nardello, Knaven, Zanini, Dekker, Vande Velde, Van Haecken, Dierckxens and Baldato.
Behind, Bortolami was involved in a chase group that also included Cofidis’s Chris Peers, Lampre’s Max Sciandri, Mercury Viatel’s Geert Van Bondt and Lotto’s Paul Van Hyfte. When those five caught, and CSC-World Online’s Arvis Piziks regained the lead group, 14 riders entered the final hour and a half amongst the leaders.
In the final 40km, the race became a pursuit, with a group containing several pre-race favorites –- Romans Vainsteins (Domo-Farm Frites), Andrei Tchmil (Lotto-Adecco), Museeuw, Rolf Sorensen (CSC-World Online), Hincapie, Steffen Wesemann– closing in on the leaders. Eventually, Sorensen and Denis Zanette (Liquigas-Pata) would bridge up, but Tchmil, Museeuw, Vainsteins and the rest would never close the gap, which several times was down under 15 seconds.
Over the final two climbs, the Mur de Grammont and the Bosberg, the lead group would bend, but not break, under the pressure of Zanette and Dierckxsens. A few dropped off, including Vande Velde on the Mur, but a big group of eight was left to contest the finish.
As the eight made the final right turn with 500 meters left to the finish in Meerbeke, Bortolami and Dekker made their move to the front, and flew across the line virtually side-by-side, with the Italian just barely edging out Dekker, with Zanette third. A few seconds later, Tchmil outsprinted Vainsteins in the sprint for ninth.
For the 32-year-old Bortolami, whose career results include runner-up finishes at Paris-Roubaix and Het Volk, it was one of the biggest wins of his 11-year professional career, and may signal a return to winning ways after spending some time in the shadows of former Vini Caldirola teammates Vainsteins and Casagrande in the past few years.
1. Gianluca Bortolami (I), Taconni-Vini Caldirola, 269km in 6:10:12 (43.596 kph); 2. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank; 3. Denis Zanette (I), Liquigas-Pata; 4. Rolf Sorensen (Dk), CSC-World Online; 5. Daniele Nardello (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 6. Max Sciandir (GB), Lampre-Daikin; 7. Chris Peers (B), Cofidis; 8. Ludo Dierckxsens (B), Lampre-Daikin, all s.t.; 9. Andrei Tchmil (B), Lotto-Adecco, at 0:18; 10. Romans Vainsteins (Lat), Domo-Farm Frites; 11. Nico Mattan (B), Cofidis; 12. Steffen Wesemann (G), Telekom; 13. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 14. Gabriele Balducci (I), Taconni-Vini Caldirola; 15. Michele Bartoli (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 16. Johan Museeuw (B), Domo-Farm Frites, all s.t.; 17. Christian Vande Velde (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 1:19; 18. Frank Hoj (Dk), Coast; 19. Hans De Clercq (B), Lotto-Adecco; 20. Guido Trenti (USA), Cantina Tollo; 21. Bart Voskamp (Nl), Bankgiroloterij; 22. Markus Zberg (Swi), Rabobank; 23. Paolo Bettini (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 24. Arvis Piziks (Lat), CSC-World Online; 25. Servais Knaven (Nl), Domo-Farm Frites; 26. Aart Vierhouten (Nl), Rabobank; 27. Marco Serpellini (I), Lampre-Daikin; 28. Jo Planckaert (B), Cofidis; 29. Roberto Petito (I), Fassa Bortolo; 30. Matteo Tosatto (I), Fassa Bortolo, all s.t.
38. Cedric Vasseur (F), U.S. Postal Service, at 2:16; 39. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Mercury-Viatel, at 3:58; 41. Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 44. Geert Van Bondt (B), Mercury-Viatel, at 4:06; 51. Matt White (Aus), U.S. Postal Service, at 5:40; 53. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom, at 8:50; 62. Andrea Tafi (I), Mapei-Quick Step, s.t.; 69. Mario Cipollini (I), Saeco, s.t.; 74. Plamen Stainov (Bul), Mercury-Viatel, at 10:56; 77. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service; 79. Benoit Joachim (Lux), U.S. Postal Service; 84. Antonio Cruz (USA), U.S. Postal Service